Are There Conditions Under Which Directors Should Consider Hiring a CEO Fired Elsewhere for Inappropriate Behavior?

SUMMING UP: Executives fired fairly or unfairly over worker violence and harassment charges are about to seek new jobs. James Heskett's readers have widely divergent beliefs about whether they should ever be considered for new posts.
by James Heskett

How Does a Board Introduce to the Organization a CEO Fired Elsewhere for Inappropriate Behavior?

The question of conditions under which a board might hire a CEO fired elsewhere for inappropriate behavior, the subject of this month’s column, produced cogent arguments on both sides of the issue and a reminder of the possible consequences of a board’s hiring decision.

One group found it difficult to identify any conditions under which such a hire might be made. Edward said, “He/she had their chance. I’m prone to stay away from damaged goods.” As Shayne put it, “I would call them sexual predators … and no there is no place for them in positions of power, ever, anywhere.” Janie added, “There is compelling evidence suggesting that many CEOs have strong narcissistic qualities, border on sociopathic tendencies, and often turn workplaces into ‘veritable jungles.’ These individuals … are unlikely to respond to methods aimed at improving behavioral problems.” CLT commented: “The refusal of an applicant to honor a policy is (more than) reason enough to dismiss the applicant from further consideration. Why hire an applicant who is unworthy of a company’s trust?”

Others suggested circumstances under which such a hire might be made. Michael E opined, “I don’t believe you can generalize across the breadth of potential situations… all people deserve second chances under appropriate conditions… as difficult as it may be, the hiring team will have to act as a combination hiring assessment team, judge and jury, and exercise the wisdom of Solomon.”

David McConnell said, “Maybe the answer lies in the question, ‘What is the offender doing to be sure that it does not happen again?’ … How long does that take? … Bottom line, a board should NOT be considering someone fresh from such an offense.“ David Wittenberg wrote that a board that would automatically disqualify such fired managers might be playing it too safe. “When a board of directors identifies a candidate with the right skills, personality and track record, it should be free to discount past misconduct while taking appropriate steps, such as adding contractual clauses to assure that the manager will not repeat the offenses that led to the earlier firing.” Shadreck Saili observed that getting fired in itself might transform a candidate. MrScott remarked that the issue is how this person handles power over others. “It may be important that they act aggressively towards competitor companies … However, it seems crucial that they have the behavioral flexibility to act very differently towards subordinates and co-workers.”

These comments were advanced in the context of a sobering and thought-provoking contribution from #METOO that forces us to consider a follow-on question. When #METOO asked her boss to help her avoid a client who had raped someone from another organization, instead of helping her, the boss began behaving inappropriately toward her. Rejecting his advances and an “opportunity” to work for him, she was passed over for partner and left the firm. “He, the protected rainmaker, went on to make sexual advances to many other female associates … and 15 years later is still employed in a cushy job at the firm.”

Assuming that this situation is not unique and that those with experiences similar to #METOO can be found in our own organizations, it gives us pause not only to be especially careful in the CEO hiring decision but also to give serious thought to how or whether such a hire might be introduced successfully to the organization.

#METOO suggested that rather than just concentrating on the hiring decision, a board’s “focus should be on advancing all of the women whose careers were derailed by these arrogant, narcissistic, powerful, PROTECTED men.”

It raises the question: How does a board introduce to the organization a CEO fired elsewhere for inappropriate behavior? What do you think?

Original Column

My column posted last week, “Under What Conditions Would You Hire a CEO ‘Displaced’ by #MeToo?,” raised much debate but also angry responses regarding the appropriateness of certain terms and labels. These prompted my editor and I for the first time in 18 years and 217 monthly columns to pull the piece temporarily and review the criticism. The result is this revised post, which reflects what we heard.

The article elicited forcefully written letters of complaint to my editor, and several other rebukes posted on comments to the story. Specifically, objections were raised to the use of “#MeToo-related accusations” without explaining #MeToo and what it means—no small task in a short piece such as this. The overall thread was that the references trivialized what victims experienced. Also, there were objections to the use of “displaced” and “refugees” to describe the growing ranks of those senior executives who have lost their jobs for actual or alleged inappropriate workplace behavior. My attention was called to the sensitivity of these terms because of what is going on in Syria, Myanmar, and other places in the world. In the article itself, I described labels I had seen elsewhere (including “the accused” and even “bad men”) in my struggle to come up with better descriptors. They were constructive and useful criticisms.

It became apparent that these debates were likely to obscure any discussion of the issue at hand. I asked myself how I would handle this if it were a real (as opposed to the simulated experience we try to create here) MBA classroom at HBS in which students and the instructor alike teach and learn. The answer: Take time out to agree on labels and definitions.

So we decided to pull and revise the piece, asking (as I do now): How do you think we should refer to executives fired for inappropriate workplace behavior?

Now let’s revisit the original issue. The attempted re-entry into the work world by the wave of recently fired senior executives with CEO potential is likely to begin this summer, so the issue takes on added timeliness. And let’s clarify that we are not talking about executives who are known to have committed serious assaults or other potential criminal acts. No board that I am personally aware of would consider hiring those people.

The growing body of senior executives who’ve lost their jobs due to inappropriate workplace behavior contains men with a wide variety of attitudes and capabilities. Some lost their jobs for what they did; others lost their jobs for what they didn’t do. What’s to be done with senior executives such as these?

It’s the duty of boards reviewing their CVs to perform proper due diligence. They will also be dealing with previous employers who are engaged in what has come to be called “passing the trash,” providing recommendations for former executives that are truthful only as far as they go, leaving out critical information about why the candidate is on the market.

Will organizations be tempted to hire someone, perhaps a highly experienced, high-profile executive, who might not otherwise be available or interested in the job? On the other hand, if the person is to be hired, what are the costs in terms of damage to an organization’s reputation and culture, manifested by objections and complaints by current employees?

Will CEO candidates who lost their jobs for what they didn’t do be considered differently than those who are available because of what they did? What else, if anything, should be done to evaluate someone who has lost his job under such conditions? And what message, if any, should the board send to executives throughout the organization confronted with “opportunities” to hire what might be called “tainted talent”?

As a director, are there conditions under which you would hire a CEO candidate fired elsewhere for inappropriate workplace behavior? What do you think?

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